Charlena Smith: “Kindness begets kindness”

Kindness begets kindness. Maybe you catch yourself making a snarky comment. If you do: be intentional about correcting your misstep and then sharing 8 positive comments elsewhere online to counteract the negative one. As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder […]

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Kindness begets kindness. Maybe you catch yourself making a snarky comment. If you do: be intentional about correcting your misstep and then sharing 8 positive comments elsewhere online to counteract the negative one.

As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Charlena, an in-demand, international keynote speaker, professor of communications, best-selling author, and the founder of Optio, a matched and guided accountability platform that empowers individuals to live their best, most inspired lives. Charlena grew up and lives in a multi-generational home in Baltimore, MD with her brilliant husband and their two incredibly mischievous, yet simultaneously adorable children.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

I was born into a typical working-class family, in a pretty poor neighborhood, although I didn’t know we were a poor community until I left. Perspective is a funny thing. I truly wish every child had the opportunity to grow up as I did. We were very family-centered. The family came first, second and third. I always felt supported. I always felt loved. My parents worked hard, and they loved harder. We shared property with both sets of my grandparents at various stages of my youth. I’ve always lived on a multi-generational property. People always ask me how we do that. Honestly, I don’t know how (or why) people in the U.S. try to do all of this alone. It’s pretty common to live near or with family in so many other parts of the world. And for us — it just works. I’ve always known the love, not only of my parents and siblings, but of my grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Everyone always did what they could, when they could. My mom worked two jobs to support my dad, who was also working full-time and attending night school. Then my dad buckled down to take care of my mom when she got sick. And yet, with all those responsibilities, they never missed a game. They never missed a performance. They were always there cheering me on. They all were. I had everything I needed and more. And there was never a shortage of love.

I recently heard that you need to determine 3 types of champions in your life if you want to be successful. First, you need an ‘encourager’ — someone who thinks all your ideas are the best thing since sliced bread. Your encourager is your eternal cheerleader, your very own pom-pom squad of one. Next, you need a ‘speed bump’. That’s someone who says, “That seems like a mighty fine idea, but why don’t we just pump the breaks and go over this new territory nice and slow, like?” Finally, you need the ‘rock’. The rock is the most important and the most difficult to find. Your rock loves you no matter what. If you shoot up to the sky, achieve your wildest dreams, and then somehow end up crashing and burning in a blaze of glory, your rock usually doesn’t even know it happened. They just love you for who you are. My parents are my rock. I know I wouldn’t be the person I am today without their unwavering love and support. I’m also pretty sure they don’t have a clue what I ‘do for a living.’ And you know what? They don’t care. Not in a bad way. They just love me if it’s Tuesday and I’m the kindergarten cafeteria volunteer or it’s Thursday and I just passed a law before Congress for equal rights. To them, it’s just another day that begins in T and ends in Y that they get to love and support their daughter. How lucky am I?

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Actually, I think HOW Optio began is the most interesting. The pre-story to the pre-story, if you will. Here’s what happened. I started a non-profit marketing company, appropriately named ‘The Girl who Lived’. It didn’t take long before we were reforming the way local non-profits approached marketing. It was wonderful, but it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I worked on strategy, implementation, media and other back-end functions within The Girl Who Lived. I was never on the front lines.

One day, I was having a typical, busy afternoon in my entrepreneur/mom life, and I stopped at Aldi to grab a few essentials. I was in a hurry because the window of time when both of my boys are in school was very short and I was already running behind. A checklist a mile long was running through my brain when a woman approached me. She spoke little to no English, was modestly dressed (though not nearly warm enough for the cold temperatures), and her demeanor was fraught with despair, but laced with hope. I recognized the energy. I could tell that asking for help was uncomfortable territory for her. But she was desperate. Her name was Maria.

I told her, truthfully, that I didn’t have any cash on me, but offered her a blessing bag from our car. My boys and I make bags filled with essentials — nonperishable food, toiletries, water, etc. and I keep them in the car. That was not enough. There was a great sense of urgency about her. I did not know it then, but she had many other mouths to feed. I trusted my instincts and walked with her into the store. We grabbed a cart and went shopping together. She bought gallons of milk, her weight in chicken, pork, potatoes, diapers, formula, onions, toilet paper, and laundry detergent. I paid for her items at the checkout and bought some bags for her to carry everything in. After we bagged it up, I then asked her how she planned to get home. She planned to ride the bus. She was loaded down with about 30 pounds of raw chicken plus three gallons of milk, she probably weighs less than 90 pounds, and — I discovered later that day — she’d given birth two weeks prior. And she was going to get on Baltimore’s less-than-desirable public bus transit system? I don’t think so! I took a HUGE leap outside of my comfort zone, and I drove her home. This is where I met one of her children, who spoke a tiny bit more English. I discovered they were from Romania and were living with a family from Syria, whom I also had the pleasure of meeting. All refugees that had been through more than I’ll ever be able to imagine. The formula was for her 2-week old daughter. She was breastfeeding, but her daughter continued to lose weight and she was scared she wasn’t producing enough milk and didn’t have the guidance of a steady pediatrician. Her husband, previously their strong provider, had become very sick during the trip and was now bed-bound. The chicken and potatoes were to feed them all. Her eldest son, 14, was looking for work to provide for his entire family but was having a very hard time because he spoke little to no English. He continued to ask me what his ‘skill set’ was — because that’s what interviewers had been asking him. But he didn’t know what ‘skill set’ meant. Because he was FOURTEEN. He told me about his plans to be a doctor when he grew up. Be he had to shelve those dreams for tomorrow in order to figure out how to feed his family today.

They were also terrified to travel. Being separated was their number one fear. The three-year-old little girl wouldn’t even walk near the doors of their empty row home for fear someone would reach in and grab her to take her away. She stood firmly planted in the center of the room.

I spent as much time as I could with them that day. They were so beautiful in so many ways. And they invited me, my husband and our boys back for dinner. We went. We became friends. Our children became friends. That three-year-old little girl? She learned English — and she still helps my son speak to strangers. (English maybe her second language but she runs circles around his speech delay.) In that ONE event, that single step outside my comfort zone, I gained a deeper understanding of so many things.

Our friendship continued and through Maria, I found the International Rescue Commission (IRC) where I began the framework for Guided Accountability. The foundation of Optio.

Initially, my work with the IRC was through The Girl who Lived. I was tasked with setting up a system to acclimate Syrians into the U.S. culture as smoothly as possible. They needed to learn to navigate not only a new landscape and different language, but also different medical, transportation and school systems, just to name a few. We paired them with established women in the community nearby and created a communication framework to help them navigate the language and cultural barriers. This framework was like wizardry. Not only were the Syrians acclimating faster than ever, but their American counterparts flooded us with comments, testifying to their changed hearts and the ability to access empathy in a way they’d never dreamed possible. It was life-changing in the best way for both parties. We thought: “Wait. Is this a thing? If we pair other women and use this kind of framework: give them space, time and permission to be vulnerable along with the tools to discover their purpose and live it out — will we get the same results?” We decided to find out, so we started our beta test with other women around the world. That’s how Optio and the Guided Accountability movement was born.

We compiled loads of research and cataloged an intense amount of data from our pairings. A top NASA engineer (who just so happens to be that amazing partner I mentioned earlier… Lucky me, right?! ) created a complex algorithm to pair people to their best-Guided Accountability partners. Now, a Guided Accountability partner is not a best friend, but rather the person that is going to bring OUT the best in you. We’ve created deep, thoughtful training on how to be a Guided Accountability partner, plus a specific framework for women to discover their true purpose, develop goals in alignment with that purpose, and see it through in a 12-week program that results in a 97% increase in success rates.

I never could have imagined how ONE act outside my comfort zone could take me so far.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

One that comes to mind is back when we were first starting out with Optio, and Guided Accountability was a completely new concept. We were chatting with angel investors who may be interested in joining us on this journey. I was the CEO of a major company but had decided that it was really important for me to be able to work from home occasionally.

So I decided to meet with a Fortune 10 CEO seed investor over Skype from my home office.

My son was in preschool at the time and should have been out of the house. But we’re in Baltimore and occasionally there are weather-related changes to the school’s schedule. On this particular day, Baltimore schools opened two hours later due to weather. Rather than reschedule, I attempted to ‘do it all.’ I fed the boys breakfast, let them burn off some morning energy in the newly fallen snow, and then pulled up an educational but fun video for them to watch while I jumped on my video conference call. I was momming SO HARD I could hardly stand myself.

I locked myself in my office and began my presentation. Suddenly I heard the scratching sound at the door, but I didn’t panic. Not only was the door locked, but I also had a kid-proof doorknob and a safety latch in place. The boys weren’t getting through that door… Until they did.

Suddenly, there he was. My 5-year-old had figured out how to enter what I thought was a secure room with the aid of his ridiculously crafty 7-year-old brother. And what was he doing? He was in the corner of the video screen MOONING the CEO. MOONING HER! I nearly died. To make matters worse, I jumped out of my seat to usher him back out the door, revealing that, although I was neatly dressed in a sports coat and scarf on top, I was wearing blue and pink polka dot pajama pants on the bottom!

Oh my heavens! AAAHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!

This spectacle was followed by complete silence. But then… she laughed! She laughed so hard I thought she was going to hurt herself. But she said she was sold. She wasn’t entirely sure what I was pitching — but she wanted in on what I had. She also wanted to know how she could help and if there was space at our holiday dinner table.

I decided at that moment that that was what it was all about. I was still a CEO. I still had a family. Some people get it. Some people don’t. And that’s okay. This is my season. I’m a CEO and Mom. And if you can’t work with me with a 5-year-old mooning you from the corner, well… maybe we just shouldn’t be partners. Because that’s my life right now. And I couldn’t possibly love it anymore.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Thank you so much for asking! I recently released the International Best Seller: Guided Accountability: Increase the Likelihood of Goal Achievement by 97%. Right now we’re doing a big push to get at least one copy in every library.

We’ve also just launched an exclusive group program called the “Goal Keepers Guild”. It’s combining the Optio experience with laser coaching on group calls with me and other experts. We’re helping women identify their purpose- both overarching and their purpose in this particular season of life. We’ll hold space and help them create S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals that align with this purpose and see them through to the finish line. I’m so excited I could burst. So many women’s lives are going to be changed for the better, and as a result, their families and greater communities at large will be dramatically impacted. The change will be palpable. I truly believe that by growing the reach of the Guided Accountability framework, woman by woman, individual by individual, we are doing our part to move the world to a more peaceful state for all.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?

I’ve been shamed in so many ways I can’t count. But I’ve been blessed with the ability to let MOST things roll off my back. Kind of like a duck… OR sometimes I don’t even realize that I’ve been shamed. HA! How crazy is that? But OF COURSE, I’ve felt the shame and embarrassment that can result from just about any social media encounter. I think the ones that hurt the most have been around my parenting style. I’m more confident as a Mom now — but in the beginning? Oh, man. It felt like everything was a personal attack (even when it wasn’t)

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

I allow myself to feel it. I share with the individual how it made me feel (because I want them to know), but I don’t have any expectations surrounding their response. I let it go and I move on. Just keep taking the next right step.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

Of course, I have! Hasn’t everyone said something they regret? For me… I think one of the most painful things is when someone takes what I’m saying out of context and I unintentionally hurt their feelings. It. Is. The Worst.. 97% of communication is nonverbal — as in you lose 97% of the message when only words are exchanged online. That leaves a lot of room for error.

The first thing that comes to mind was when a friend was going through a hard time. I shared the adage “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. What a load of crap. Now having walked the journey of severe illness — and seeing the other side I can feel, in my bones, how unhelpful and even hurtful this was. I’ve reached out and apologized for my ignorance — to many — but you can never truly take back how you made someone feel at that crucial moment.

Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?

I really believed what I was saying. I thought I was being positive. What I really was doing was minimizing her trauma, and limiting her space to truly feel the pain of her experience. I’ve come to realize that sometimes people just need the space to be heard. They don’t need advice or ancient adages. They just need you to listen. And YES this applies online.

When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

The thing is, we are all vulnerable human beings, craving connection, craving to be loved in some way. These hurtful comments can be incredibly painful whether we know the person behind the comment or not. What exacerbates the problem even further, is that so many of us spend so much of our time starving for honest human connection, and spending our days seeing only the best of the lives people share online. We compare ourselves to everyone’s role. We already feel pretty sub-par (no matter how influential, confident or famous — everyone’s human). When you see incredibly hurtful comments come on your screen (especially the personal ones), it further solidifies the separateness you may be feeling, between yourself and the perceived perfection of others you follow on social media.

Do you think a verbal online attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

Conflict in any form is pretty difficult for me, personality. Necessary — of course. But painful and exhausting. I think they both are certainly hard to take, but where they differ is that when the attack is in “real life” there is more context to the situation, when the attack is online, the person on the receiving end simply takes it in, generally without any awareness of what triggered the person on the other end to say those things. For me — when I’m in person and someone says something nasty I can almost immediately acknowledge that it’s not really about me. It’s about them. They’re having a bad day. Something triggered them and I’m simply an outlet for them to take their frustration out on. In-person, you usually know the individual with which you may be having a disagreement, you understand what may be going on in their life, you also likely have other experiences with the individual that show you that they care, despite the current conflict, you don’t have to take the one side and assume that’s all there is to it, and internalize what’s been said. Online it’s a bit different. When there’s no face or context behind the comment it takes a bit longer to dismiss it. I have to skip a beat, remember that I don’t know them and that this most likely isn’t really about me. It’s just easier to be mean and harder to have perspective on the receiving end.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

This is not just about online shame vs. “real life” shame, the effects of shame are the same. When people feel shame, it leads to the insidious growth of shame. They try to deflect and push that shame onto someone else, but it doesn’t get rid of it for them, it just adds a little more shame to the world. Big picture we’re just spreading shame more rapidly, and we have worked so hard in recent years to strip away the strength of shame in our lives. If the recipient of the shaming doesn’t have a solid foundation of self-worth, the likelihood they will internalize what was said and replay it in their head until it becomes a story they believe to be true about themselves and further damage their sense of self-worth, is very high. A diminished sense of worth has a snowball effect that leads to a mirage of self-destructive patterns.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

A lot of the reason lies in the human psyche. Like I mentioned before, the majority of communication is non-verbal, composed of body language, eye contact, speech tone, and language patterns. We don’t have access to those cues in an online space. Without this information to help us process and categorize information, our minds are left to sort through the uncertainty. And we’re wired for fight or flight. If we’re not 100% sure about someone’s intent — it often creates a negative reaction to the ‘perceived threat’ and then… it escalates. Quickly.

I believe the A Role we choose to display on social media also plays a part. We continually present the best versions of ourselves online. We reap the psychological and emotional benefits of ‘likes’ or ‘follows’. This falsely inflated increase in self-esteem lacking substance may grow disproportionately and then negatively impact our self-control. The result of all this false esteem? You feel entitled to be an online bully. Like somehow you’ve earned it in this online world.

I’d also hazard a guess, after witnessing such instances myself, that people frequently forget that what they write online is actually the equivalent of them speaking out loud. They post a thought that, to them, is internal dialogue, without fully realizing there’s a human at the other end of that post.

I also think the lack of physical proximity plays a part. The closer you are to a person — in physical space — the less likely you are to be mean spirited. It’s easier to vote someone off the island when they’re not actually there.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

  1. Kindness begets kindness. Maybe you catch yourself making a snarky comment. If you do: be intentional about correcting your misstep and then sharing 8 positive comments elsewhere online to counteract the negative one.
  2. Make kindness cool. Acknowledge and applaud those that are being kind online. Ignore or call out (in a KIND way) those that are not. In most situations bullies are just looking for attention so ignoring them can go a long way.
  3. Have something wonderful to say? Shout it from the rooftops in a public forum. Have constructive criticism? Consider sharing it through a private chat that isn’t available for public consumption.
  4. Slow your roll. If you’re all fired up and ready to type away some less-than-kind response: hit the pause button. Take a few deep breaths. Drink a glass of water. If you still just HAVE to say something — keep it private.
  5. Would you say what you’re about to post in front of your daughter? Your son? Your niece? Your nephew? On the schoolhouse playground? The Internet is available to one and all. And what you write now? Well — it’s not going anywhere. Once you press that enter key, there’s no going back. Do you want your children to find something nasty thing you wrote 20 years from now? Probably not. Think about the future you when today’s you are writing.

Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?

I think it would be more valuable to spend our energy generating a kinder, more considerate and empathetic culture than censoring what we can say. If we change our thoughts to be kinder thoughts, and our words to be kinder words, then the natural flow of those changes would be a more positive landscape online without censorship. I think as with practicing gratitude and understanding that what we focus on grows, if we shift the conversation and focus to more of what we want to see, and we take our own responsibility in our own lives, giving parents resources for how to teach their children to manage their feelings in a responsible and loving way, we can each do our part to making the internet a kinder space, and every person that takes that kind of responsibility will make another shift towards that end goal.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

Oh my word. I have no idea. Facebook and Twitter are such amazing tools of this generation. But like most great inventions they can certainly be used for good or evil. I admire the philosophy of both organizations from the top. They seem to truly be in pursuit of truth and a better world.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others”

This quote by Marianne Williamson has served as a lighthouse for my life. Every time I dream big and then start to back down out of fear, I remind myself that by letting my own light shine, I unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. The ‘light’ shines in different ways for me in different seasons. Sometimes my light looks like what others might call success and sometimes my light looks like hanging on to life by a thread 5 Things we can do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, but refusing to be extinguished. No matter what the season, my light is always bright, transparent, courageous and vulnerable. Because I want to allow others to feel liberated enough to be who they were born to be, too.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Brene Brown. Her work in vulnerability and shame has been groundbreaking. Especially now, as we’re wrapping up this interview — her work is so incredibly relevant. She’s brilliant.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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